RICHARD OF NORMANDY
THE HOLY LAND
SATURDAY, 8TH DAY OF JUNE 1191
This. This is a man to wear the title of King.
Sludging through the mud nearby, Richard was only a stonesthrow from the horse and the man and the crown. Of course he had seen this man before—the one the others called King—but at the right moment the spectacle was breath-taking. Atop a horse more muscle than beauty, dripping in armor, this man became an extension of the animal rather than merely its rider. The way some damned flower crawls through the cracks of a boulder. Beast and man moved as one amongst the soldiers, and the pale dawn sky cast a glow about his edges. Un-stained plate, glistening mail, and at the top a beacon to everyone—across any stretch of battlefield, there would be no mistaking the spectacular warcrown that was perched at the top of this. This pillar.
This stupid arrogant pillar, begging to be murdered.
Only three soldiers or a desperate leap of fate away, Richard’s eyes never fell entirely on the terrain. One eye on the King, even as he navigated around holes and puddles. Others, too, turned to watch as their leader passed, pausing to wonder at him. Some might want a glimpse of the power, others cursed their own inglorious births, and another might pursue that thought to its natural extension—It could be mine, if not for luck.
Up ahead, a wide stump and a flat rock beside it. Richard dropped his pack and rushed forward, one foot on the stump, the next on the rock, propelling him high enough to leap and plunge a knife just so, underneath the king’s armor by the right breast. Up and deep, through the ribs. King and crown falls, and the war is over.
The stump and the rock and the opportunity passed by, never knowing what they could have been. A nosy soldier nearby was staring at him, so Richard looked down again and found reason to fall behind. One eye on the King.
It had only been a few maddening hours since they made shoreline, one hundred shipsworth of soldiers and steel, finally here. The Holy Land. But even that simple victory was bittered by months of delay. Each step forward now was just chasing the shadow of what-should-have-been. Every able-bodied man, knight, and nobleman at England’s disposal had followed the king’s great Crusade to the Mediterranean, only to be instantly diverted to the island country of Cyprus. A year of planning destroyed by a few shipwrecks—one of which carried the king’s wife and mother. The Holy Crusade, repurposed as a domestic rescue mission. Because of propriety, because of sentiment.
But those empty distractions were thankfully over, and they had at last landed a day’s march north of the foreign port-city called Acre. A month of sunsets from home, they were determined to take the city and Jerusalem beyond.
After all this work, it would be damned ironic to end with the king assassinated on the road so close to his goal.
In the narrowest part of the pass now, massive rock slabs rose three times the height of a man. Richard waited upon one as the Lionheart passed underneath, and loosed a single crossbow bolt. The shaft would catch the warcrown on its way out the other side of the king’s head, arrow and crown, blood and brain, launched upward and outward to mix and mingle in the mud. Amongst the confusion, Richard could slide back into rank and file. He might even throw himself over the king’s body and beat his chest in grief and sarcasm.
A pair of mounted men in bullied armor approached the king, who peeled his mount from the line to speak with them. Richard feigned disinterest, but watched. Perhaps it was nothing, any of a thousand nothings, or perhaps his game was up. A third rider called the king by name, and Richard flinched. That had been the hardest part, to forget his own name. It’s King Richard they want, he reminded himself, not I. I’m just a nobody. After a short discussion, the visitors rode away, leaving their liege as unprotected as before.
If he had a horse, Richard could ride up unchallenged, throw a noose around the king’s neck, and wrench him from his steed to be dragged and trampled, hooves crushing his throat and his chest and his legacy.
The same nosy soldier made a small half step over a rock, long enough to turn his head backward and glance at Richard again. Brief enough, but no accident. Their eyes met.
Richard surged forward, landed them both on the ground, and slit the man’s throat as he got back to his feet. Perhaps there would be two or three seconds before the men behind noticed. Long enough for a sprint, a quick dodge around the sentinel’s men. A slash to the horse’s belly would bring the king down close enough for a blade at the base of his ear before Richard was dragged down himself.
Some weaker part of Richard wondered what would come of Berengaria if he died. Certainly he ought to think more achingly of never seeing his wife again. That’s what other men would do, no doubt. They’d cling to the idea of her and remember the last time they had seen her, or carry a trinket or some petty useless remembrance as if that would help them come home alive. Whispering words into a lock of hair had, historically, never proven adequate armor against steel. He would be more than willing to accept such pedestrian superstition once he witnessed the hand of God reach down, catch an arrow, and hurl it instead at a different soldier who had never discovered true love.
No, love was no asset. Richard had watched a man grieve once over a lost lover. Really, truly grieve. Some nasty business in France where nothing had gone smoothly, the men had broken rank and rampaged through an unimportant fishing village. One of Richard’s companions—whose name he couldn’t place now—suddenly collapsed. The man was not injured but his eyes were wide, unmoving. They locked on a woman’s body down the lane, a tangle of black hair with one rigid arm clutching some amount of pretty fabric. Bone and dark crimson stretched wide toward them from her side, split open. This man, some man, his eyes nearly dried to bark so long did he not blink. He was oblivious Richard was even there staring at him—oblivious to what a Richard might be. All the man could see was the woman’s body, a trick of the mind mistaking it for his lover’s. Richard was awestruck. Impossible, that the body could be so entirely shut down by emotion—a tangible reaction to nothing. Richard was almost jealous. He had never felt anything that powerful. This otherwise healthy man broke, simply broke.
Some confused being broken with being weak, but anything can break, no matter how strong. The one thing you can never judge in a man, he recited, is what makes him break. But you can learn from him, to avoid having that same flaw.
The King, that other Richard, had waylaid his war for his weakness. History would remember that single pathetic act, and how it sealed his fate. It gave his enemy time to prepare a defense, to strategize, to lay traps. Enabling a single assassin, embedded in the English army . . .
“I didn’t mean offense,” a voice belched. The suspicious soldier was now next to him.
“Grumble,” Richard responded. He tried to analyze what words he meant to say, and realized with disappointment that he actually said the word grumble instead of anything that could be considered language. The soldier didn’t seem to notice, but incorrectly took it as an invitation to continue talking.
“It’s just that you look familiar, is all. Have we met?”
They hadn’t. Some of the companies had been reorganized upon landfall, which was why Richard thought he might go unquestioned so close to the king. This observant soldier had insulting eyebrows and a scar across his nose, which seemed more likely to have been received by slapping his helmet on too quickly than from an enemy hoping to cleave it off. “Are you with Lincolnshire?”
“I keep to myself, and don’t intend that to change,” Richard lied, readjusted his pack, and broke to his left. His jaw chomped on the ugly English language, and no doubt the stranger heard his accent beneath. But it wouldn’t matter. That man would never speak to Richard again.
The path leaned straight here, hugging a gentle slope littered thick with curious trees, a rarity in this terrain. If Richard were an army, which he sadly noted he was not, he would hide in that hillside and noiselessly slide down into the line’s flank, taking half the king’s number before anyone had thought twice. Instead, he resigned himself to behaving quite unarmylike for a while longer, pushing on along the road, doing his best to be unnoticeable, one eye on the King.
By day’s end, the army stopped well north of Acre to regroup and supply. A campsite for eight thousand men was a wild animal, constantly twitching and kicking. An endless rolling noise combined complaint with cheer, lament with laughter. Richard closed his eyes and breathed it in, the hammering and arguing and power, all intertwined into a single voice, the sound of men. This is what made him unable to ever miss a Berengaria. The breathing of an army was unlike the breathing of a woman. His hands could feel the softness of a woman, but his heart could never be engrossed in it. A thousand men, out of their element, relying on nothing but that which they carried on their backs and the bond of the brother beside them, living for one more night of relative safety . . . this was something to be overwhelmed in. Richard wished he could get drunk on the sound and forget himself. There was simplicity here, a joyous numb stupidity that was shut off to him now, for whenever he opened his eyes he was closer to the king’s tent and to his duty.
The husk of a wagon offered him its darkness, but the nearly full moon gave him a clear view as the king and his entourage approached. Each man ducked through the heavy flaps of the command tent. The king, escorted by his personal guardsman—handsome men both—and a handful of company leaders were there to talk strategy. But Richard didn’t watch them enter. He had already sprinted around the back of the tent, flattened himself against the ground between two tent stakes and pulled the thick cloth over himself, rolling inside and quickly upright again. Furs hanging from ceiling to floor masked Richard’s presence as the king’s company rifled inside, cursing about this and that and tearing their armor off, believing themselves safe. Richard’s blade, short enough to be tucked into his sleeve, was now in his palm. When the commotion was loudest he moved, two steps behind the king, his right arm reached around with the knife, his left hand grabbed the king’s shoulder to push his neck through the waiting steel.
“Dead,” he stated.
He said it in English, the one word he envied them, its French equivalent lacking the finality of its hard d. He touched the blade to the king’s royal throat, and the king’s royal lips smiled.
“Very good, Your Grace,” answered Robin of Locksley, removing the crown from his head.
“Excepting you died first,” came a second voice from behind. Richard felt a tap at his back, the edge of a sword. “We would have killed you outside, but figured you wouldn’t want the commotion.
”Richard laughed off the excuse, but still surrendered his knife to the man behind him. William de Wendenal took the weapon with a slight laugh, and emerged from the shadows with obvious satisfaction.
“Even so,” Richard swung fully into the light, “you let me get too close.”
“Well I forgot to mention that my throat is protected by God Himself,” Robin said, “and He would never let you damage it.” He stood to trade places on the throne with its rightful owner, which Richard accepted. The chair warmed to him, it preferred his touch over either of his two body doubles, it could recognize a true king’s power over any impostor’s. Richard flopped himself down, gave his crown a cursory inspection, and thanked his guardsmen for their work. There had thankfully been no surprises awaiting their arrival in this foreign land, but it was only the first day of many.
“Now then,” he leveled his eyes on the others. A council of sycophant noblemen and misplaced egos, and their armies outside. The sum of Richard’s plans and taxes had brought them here—not the best England could offer, but certainly the best it could afford. It would suffice, because it had to.
They awaited instruction, as every well-curbed dog does.
Richard gave it. “Let’s war.”